China is an enormous country, of similar size to the USA, and as a result it has many areas of natural beauty as candidates for this accolade. The place that sounded most appealing to me was Xiamen, on the South East Coast of China in Fujian province. All of the students I teach talk about Xiamen as though they're about to cry. One, who went to University there, sports a smug grin whenever the subject is raised, looking around the room, I expect waiting for applause.
What's Xiamen all about? Beach? Check. Culture? Check. 'Relaxed way of life?' Check. Fancy Island with old Portuguese architecture? Check. That was my primary introduction to Xiamen, but I was sure I'd find more to it than that. Most of Xiamen is on Xiamen island. I never got to mainland-Xiamen, but from what I could see it looked like if you Google Image searched 'China': mountains and high rise buildings. There was an impressive bridge (Haicang Bridge), which seemed to be carrying predominantly freight from Xiamen's port onto the mainland.
The city felt a lot like Taiwan to me. The way the humidity and temperature plays with the buildings - ivy, moss, rust... The way the local street food looked pretty clean (in comparison with Shanghai). The two cultures are tightly connected, and actually you are able to see one of the Taiwanese islands (Kinmen) from the East coast of Xiamen Island. You can take a day trip there, but unfortunately I didn't have time. Xiamen and Kinmen each have big signs facing each other with suggestive slogans, which reminds me of that Taylor Swift video when the next-door neighbours fall in love.
I kept eating this dish called 沙茶面 (Shachamian), which is basically noodles, and processed meat and seafood, in a thick nutty broth, along with Xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings), and various locally-sourced seafood, which I trusted significantly more than Shanghai's. One evening a middle aged American expat took me out for pizza in an area people call Marco Polo, with a pretty sad looking parade of foreigner bars and restaurants.
A much more exciting area was around the University, particularly on and around Daxue Road. This zig-zag path of construction work and bus crashes ready to happen contains all sorts of interesting hole in the walls, alleyways with book shops and friendly, tiny bars (at one of which after 15 minutes of poor Chinese conversation, the barman invited his English speaking sister along to drink with us). There is the staple 'factory-turned art zone' (by chance I'm at another of those now, M50, in SH), upon the roof of which I stumbled across a poetry reading at midnight. Furthermore, I spent an afternoon watching Hitchcock in what appeared to be someone's living room opened to the public (the public who are able to find it, that is). The living room's owner was listening to Dido in another room with a glass of red wine, which I felt emulated a moment in my childhood when I saw that exact scene and immediately understood what being in your late twenties would be like.
Everyone goes nuts in Xiamen over this island 'Gulangyu'. It's a fairly small place, with unique architecture (for China), but unfortunately the developers of tourism and business on this island came with a pretty small portfolio of suggestions. I like pineapple cake and coffee, Gulangyu, don't get me wrong, but I can only manage one of each a day. Whilst trying to maintain this ramshackle community and aesthetic they have failed with the content and substance. I was happy to be in the company of an extremely positive British doctor, and together we feigned surprise each time we passed another milk tea stand. For lunch, we ate a Crab Baozi with a straw.
All in all, Xiamen is a fantastic place. In my down time I made my way to a sandy beach on the other side from all the action, where I dozed peacefully under a tree. I couldn't believe I was in China at that moment.